This summer, Ryan Murphy gave fans of Glee an official peek into the show's "real" casting protocols with a reality series called The Glee Project. The producers narrowed 40,000 contenders to twelve, for a one-elimination-per-week competition, and the winner was promised a seven-episode arc on the hit Fox show. Using not just the Glee name, but the well-branded Glee code of ethics towards outsiders, this series proudly celebrated teenage otherness with the express goal of putting more difference on television. And it succeeded.
But in revealing casting practices as the explicit motivation behind the standard reality competition structure, The Glee Project also exposes the boundaries of otherness on television. Ultimately, success on the show came only to those who could custom-tailor their identities to suit Glee's large ensemble cast, suggesting that only certain kinds of outsiders deserve to be embraced. This played out on screen in the same kind of disciplining we see on programs like America's Next Top Model, where adult authority figures in the position of judges perpetually instruct young contestants on how to behave correctly. Tips from the "mentors" on The Glee Project (who benefitted from the all-seeing eyes and ears of cameramen) ranged from how to project the right kind of inoffensive confidence to proper conduct on the set. The most striking advice, though, is about identity performance, as the judges use critique sessions to mold the kids' on and off-screen personas.
For example, they actively encourage Alex to perform in drag and enact a very particular kind of queerness that Murphy feels embodies the show. By the finale, they're pleased with their work, exclaiming that "Alex is good or great always, but when he's in drag, there's something special." Similarly, as this clip shows, Murphy oddly persuades Samuel to start playing up his Christianity, tats and all. Though Samuel is, in their words later on, "like no one else on television," the thing that makes him a viable contender here is his ability to play a certain part that both is and isn't who he is in "real" life. There's nothing shocking about either this moment or the need to balance out even the most diverse casts, but it points to the limitations of the discourse of otherness that both Glee and The Glee Project happily exploit. At the end of the day, difference on television is valued only when it's readable within relatable narratives of community.
This isn't the first show about casting, either for a reality show or for a fictional narrative, but what is odd about this case is the emphasis on actors playing themselves in a fictional show. Such semi-true roles would more typically be taken by already famous actors playing around with their well-known personas--as can be seen by several actors on Curb Your Enthusiasm (RIchard Lewis, Ted Danson, etc.). In this case, these teens are expected to not prove their acting ability, but prove that they themselves as real people would fit into the narrative of the show.
I can't help think that Samuel knows this, as he seems to be adapting his persona on the fly to match the direction given. In that sense, individual difference does become one more casting issue. You are correct in your explanation that the accepted differences are limited by what the narrative demands, and ultimately what network television will accept.
Yes, it is definitely a strange turn, especially considering their young age. And for me, it's actually a little uncomfortable. The fact that they're still teens and still figuring out who they are suggests that the identity shifts they undertake on screen might actually end up playing a role in their personal development. It's like they're learning to see themselves as characters and brands before they see themselves as people.
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